There was a lot of debate as to whether this year’s Women’s Club 7s Nationals should be a 12- or 16-team event. Last year, a handful of last-minute dropouts not only needlessly stressed out organizers, but the integrity of the competition was also compromised. The pools were supplemented with teams that weren’t qualified for national-level rugby, and with only 15 teams in attendance, one pool received a bye through day one.
Dre Khoury is heading the organization of this year’s championship once again, and she polled regional directors for their input. Although not unanimous, a 16-team field was agreed upon after Khoury received sufficient interest from teams around the country. But after last year’s experience, Khoury built in contingency plans for if and (likely) when teams started wavering.
And good thing, because teams’ knees have started to weaken. As of this Monday, Khoury had yet to finalize the seeds to nationals.
“I was hoping that the brackets would be finalized by now, but some regions are struggling with fulfilling their seeds,” Khoury said a month before the national championships. “I gave a number of teams until this week to confirm, or we’d give the seeds to other regions.”
The most egregious offender? The West. The region failed to send anyone to nationals last year when the event was held in California, and although initial reports confirmed that the West was committed to two teams this year, it hasn’t panned out that way.
“I heard, as recently as last week, that the teams who would likely fill those two seeds are unable to attend,” Khoury said. “I'm really hoping that the West can produce at least one team.”
The South nearly defaulted again as well. Last year, Southern Exposure made a late withdrawal, and although the all-star team under Pat Neder was rallying for a trip to nationals in 2013, the team told Khoury last weekend that they didn’t have the personnel. Concurrently, Atlanta changed its mind about a competitive 7s season. After losing coach Jason Payne before the summer, the Harlequins wanted to focus on 15s foundations and play 7s socially. But then Payne unexpectedly returned from abroad, Atlanta played very well at Cape Fear 7s with little preparation, and the onus of representing the South shifted to the longtime powerhouse. They accepted the opportunity and will make a great addition to the championship.
Everyone else seems to be in good shape, save little information from the Combined Services. Should they fail to enter a team and the West go unrepresented again, that will leave three vacancies to fill. Fortunately, host city Pittsburgh is situated between three competitive regions, so a last-minute addition won’t necessarily financially tax a replacement team.
“MARFU, who has three seeds right now, would be first on the list since they have such a strong program and have historically been able to fill in teams when other regions dropped out in the last minute,” Khoury considered the recipients of additional seeds. “Similarly, the Midwest, who has two seeds right now, has created a robust 7s competition and would likely be able to support a third seed, if necessary. The Northeast is not far behind.”
Berkeley All Blues coach Laura Cabrera had also expressed interest in an additional seed for the Pacific Coast, indicating the All Blues would send their competitive college side to Pennsylvania.
This is when it starts to get dicey, however, and soon enough the most important factor becomes: Which replacement team can simply make the trip to Pittsburgh? The alternative? Limit the competition to 12 teams.
That might not actually be an option, as we don't know the final state of the West or Combined Services, but we've also heard that Southern California is struggling to find its second team willing to travel to nationals. The region is hosting its qualifier tomorrow, but again, it's all coming down to who will travel.
If that worst-case scenario does occur - the competition needs four fill-in teams - this is what a 12-team championship could look like (our picks):
Mid-Atlantic (3): NOVA, D.C. Furies, Scion/NOVA II
Pacific Coast (3): Berkeley, Seattle, Emerald City
Midwest (2): Chicago Lions, Youngbloodz
Northeast (2): Boston Belles, Morris
South (1): Atlanta
Southern California (1): San Diego
That's a nice lineup. And while, yes, there are some good teams out there (New York, Beantown, for example), not many have committed to a serious, competitive 7s season in which they're adhering to their regions' qualification systems. The last two years have shown that the women's club 7s scene can't support a 16-team division just yet, and the event needs to wait for the teams themselves to request and support it, rather than the organizing committee soliciting the clubs' participation.